Build it for yourself

An interesting observation came up while having dinner at a friend’s place last evening.

They had made Italian. The spaghetti came out on the dining table, and we plated up. I tasted it and found it pretty good — with the perfect hint of spice. But, my close friend preferred to have the spaghetti sauce a little bit chunkier. Someone else wanted it their way. My wife looks at me. This incident is the perfect case of ‘featuritis’ (coincidentally, just a couple of hours back I was telling her how difficult it is to please every Brightpod customer). Here, we were four of us (similar tastes, backgrounds, etc.) and couldn’t agree on the perfect spaghetti then how could we expect everyone (from more than 110 countries) signing up for Brightpod to be satisfied with what we have to offer them?

Pleasing everyone is impossible.

So don’t! Make the dish that you like and attract people who like what you like.

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” — Bill Cosby

Building a SaaS business — 2007 vs 2013.

We built DeskAway during 2006–2007. This was my plunge into the software product business from a service business. Looking back, I am glad I had the sense to realise that SaaS/ Cloud was going to be the future of the software business. In addition, a service business can be a good money churner but very hard to scale. I often felt I was running a HR company. On the flip side, I was a newbie to the product space. I looked at how other companies (all in North America) had hacked it and thus began my journey in the SaaS space.

In July 2007 we released DeskAway to the world — which meant, just our team.

The next few weeks were about email — I opened up my email program (Thunderbird for Windows) and fired off a few dozen mails to friends, family and recent business contacts.

We then spent the next 4 months adding new features (including a payment gateway) to DeskAway.

Welcome and user on-boarding messages were setup as cron jobs so updating or adding more messages meant messing with the code.

Cloud servers were unheard of so we hosted on a Rackspace dedicated server and paid a bomb for it.

Scalable file storage like Amazon S3 was new and I was hesitant to use it. It was easier storing files on the dedicated server itself.

I don’t think email delivery services like Postmark and Sendgrid existed or even if they did I had not heard of them.

During this time Twitter was being used by early adopters. A couple of blogs like startupdunia.com covered us and I thought this was awesome.

We started collecting emails early on and sent out newsletters every month.

We got our first customer after nearly 6 months. This happened on January 1st — do you know the feeling of partying it up New Years night (and that too in Dubai) and waking up groggy just to see an upgrade.

We weren’t aware of any tools to measure app analytics and what our initial users were doing.

Most decisions back in 2007–2008 were made on a hunch. We saw what others were doing in the SaaS space and tried to experiment. In India, there were very very few people who I could talk to regarding enterprise SaaS. This was just so new.

Things were slow, manual and social media was just about picking up speed.

» Fast-forward 2013.

Things have changed and how. I am having a blast building and growing Brightpod — a ridiculously simple task management app for marketing teams.

We use numerous tools to help build and automate Brightpod and the business..

Our prospects are buzzing and hanging out on Twitter and Quora. We listen to what they want and engage. Just like in real life but now we can do this sitting at home.

I am learning from a dozens of SaaS experts tweeting on my timeline — @dharmesh, @joelgascoigne, @cdixon, @hnshah, @davidcummings, @ttunguz, @lincolnmurphy, @jasonlk and @destraynor. They write/share stuff on customer on-boarding, best practices, guides, marketing, measuring churn rate etc. Fantastic stuff!

Inbound marketing is a fantastic way to get warm leads into your sales funnel by having them find your product.

I get a stream of information (which I filter regularly) on digital marketing from KissMetrics, Search Engine Watch, Social Media Examiner etc.

If I am stuck, I can find my way out by a simple google search.

Today, user analytics is a piece of cake thanks to KissMetrics and Intercom. I feel in control.

There are tons of blogs and directories where we can get Brightpod reviewed.

Most importantly, people are getting very used to using SaaS and Cloud tools and are well educated compared to 2007. Back then, I had to explain prospects the benefits of SaaS. I wrote dozens of articles and even wrote a book on why every company must leverage SaaS. Today, it’s educating people on the benefits of the product and how it can make their lives easier. The SaaS buy-in has long happened.

Today, I can run my business from my iPhone. Most of the apps that power Brightpod are backed by an apps so I can check-in even if I am on a beach in Mykonos, Greece (the best place in the world).

Responsive design frameworks are so awesome (Foundation, Bootstrap, Skeleton etc.) that I setup the Brightpod website without any help so my dev team could focus on the product.

I have an Evernote notebook where I save useful code snippets, Javascript scripts, CSS hacks, libraries etc. This list is growing every week. Developers are writing less code today than they were before.

The SaaS journey has been amazing so far. It is so much faster in 2013. The world is much much smaller. Even more exciting is building out Brightpod and experimenting with a lot of new things. The next 6 months will be interesting as we reach out to more people.

Lot learnt and lots to learn.

Good luck!

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” — Mahatma Gandhi

2 things to keep in mind when starting a SaaS business

This week, I met up with an entrepreneur who wanted to build a SaaS business. Most people want all the gyan and so ask you to tell them everything they need to know when building a SaaS business. However, this guy ask me to tell him just 2 most important things that he should keep in mind when starting a SaaS business.

He wanted the main course. No side-orders.

It made me think a bit. Focus. De-clutter.

I started…

Product ease.

The easier the product the better the chances of adoption without too much hand holding. You want people to come to your site, signup and start using your app without any friction. The on boarding process should be a no-brainer. Remember, these days people are impatient and have a lot of choices. Confusion will breed the thought of logging out and going to your competitor. In my opinion, design a simple product first.

Product benefits.

Sell benefits, not features. It doesn’t really matter if you have a lot of feature or very few features. What matters is if your product can demonstrate the benefit (or the value) to my business within a short span of time. For my new app, Brightpod, we started using Intercom, Kissmetrics and NewRelic and were just blown away the first week. These apps start collecting data from the very first day and show you how you can use the data to improve your business.

You could have a lot of funding or the best team but if you can’t build something thats easy to adopt and which can quickly show me value then no amount of money can help.

Do SaaS founders enjoy a good work-life balance?

Work Life Balance

I love SaaS, and I am also a big believer in a good work-life balance.

The biggest reason I love building a SaaS business (or any kind of pure-play Internet business) is that it gives me the freedom to work from anywhere/anytime, and I don’t need to rack-up flying time to suck-up to anyone (think clients in a service business). I dislike the rigidity of the corporate 9–5 life.

A SaaS business can also make you feel trapped sometimes — the notion that you need to be connected all times of the day. I am sure this is a mindset issue, but it takes a lot of discipline to switch-off (I am getting there) post late-evening.

So, how can you enjoy a balanced life and still run a 24/7 SaaS business? I think these points might help:

  • Support emails come in any time of the day. You possibly cannot answer all emails immediately. Eventually, it will drive you insane. You either delegate support to 2–3 people in your team and/or set the right expectations with your clients. An 18–24 hr turn around time is good enough for most support queries.
  • Set up Pingdom to SMS you when something goes wrong with your servers.
  • Get managed support with your hosting company so if something goes wrong they can act first. It is like having an outsourced network admin team.
  • Have a killer (smart) team in place so the burden does not solely fall on the founder. Yeah, I know this has been repeated a million times but I just had to put this down.
  • Don’t check mail post-dinner and have better email etiquette.
  • Turn off push notification for email and other things you “think” are important. If it is urgent, you will get a call.
  • Take frequent breaks either on weekend or longer vacations. It will get you rejuvenated.

So, I wanted to throw this open to you’ll. If you are running a SaaS business (or an Internet business), then, how hard is it for you to switch off late in the evening and enjoy the rest of the day with your family? Do you have any other points to add?

Thanks for reading.

Code of Conduct for SaaS Companies

SaaS companies sell to the invisible. Hence, it becomes even more challenging to create an exceptional experience for their website visitors and customers. The vision for this Code of Conduct (CoC) is for companies to play by a set of standards so that they can delight their prospects/ customers and create a better conversion rate to grow their business.

Instant Signup
You should be able to come to our site and sign up instantly and try out the software. You will never have to fill out a form to contact sales.

Online Payments
A positive trial will allow you to subscribe to one of the paying plans. You can pay online through a credit card and once successful, you will be taken to you activated paid account immediately.

SSL Encryption
We take security seriously and any traffic to and from your computer to our server is encrypted using atleast 256-bit encryption. As proof you can see the ‘lock’ symbol on your browser’s location bar when you visit any of our secure pages.

Clear Pricing
We are transparent in our prices and plans and list out what you get when you subscribe to any of our plans. We even mention if we have a free plan to get started.

Feature/ Tour
Even before your try our software you can see a range of screenshots on what you can expect when you signup. A tour will present our value proposition and benefit to your business.

Customer Casestudies
We wouldn’t be in business without our customers. See how others have benefited from using our software by reading their stories.

System Status
We are committed maximum uptime of our software. Hence, we have made this information public to let you know our server’s past performance and downtime (if any).

Active Blog
In a virtual world where we don’t even meet our customers clear communication is becoming important. We write our candid thoughts on our blog and keep an open discussion for all our visitors.

Export Data
As a customer you own your data on our servers and are free to take a backup of it at any given time.

Help/ Support
We have a robust online help section with videos, forums, faqs so that you can self-help yourself if you get stuck. Our dedicated support email will always be open if you wish to contact us with your queries and we’d be happy to email you within 24 hours.

If there are any more points that I have missed then do let me know in the comments. If you support this CoC then do put your name and company you work for in the comments.

Ticket to SaaS

Over the weekend I had an interesting conversation with a developer who wanted to start a web biz and hopefully move away from custom web development. I think this is the trend I am seeing amongst developers. SaaS/ Cloud is hot, the tools are there to get something up and running quickly (and inexpensively) and most people want this to be their ticket from getting out of the service (web development, design etc.) business. I am happy that we are thinking this way. We need more world-class products. I thought I’d share my thoughts from my conversation as I think the following 2 points are really important for the transition to happen and it might help if you are caught in the middle…

Charge Early
Say you have 5–10 companies using your beta app — it is easy to get this going since most of these would be either your current web development clients or friends/family. If you really want to measure the value of your app you need to make sure they pay for using your app. It could be anything — even Rs 100 a month. Just have them pay something for their use. When money exchanges hands it opens up new conversations and possibilities.

The next time you are getting a beta user on board tell them that they will have to pay for the app — Try it and see for yourself. The feedback you will get will be very real.

Act As-If (reminds me of the line by Ben Affleck in the movie Boiler Room)
Act as if you already own your dream SaaS company. Walk in to your prospects office like you already own your product and are on your way to have a ton of paying customers. Act as if you don’t really need them — in this case, no sucking up. Say no to customizations. If they know that you are into web dev then tell them that you are slowly phasing this out and concentrating on the product. Be confident of who you want to be. The SaaS app is also their ticket to saving time, cost or <insert your value>.

Just my 2 paisa.